Sunday 10 January 2016

USA Travel Review: Louisiana - Honey Island Swamp and New Orleans

Our US road trip continued after Natchez, Mississippi with a few days in Louisiana. My fiancé and his mum had been through Louisiana on a previous trip that was west to east (this time we were doing north to south) and had been on the Honey Island Swamp Tour. They didn't see any alligators but saw plenty of other wildlife, mainly birds. They wanted to go again and it was a completely different experience for me so I was looking forward to it, even though it was raining and we had a pretty early start in the morning - but we were rewarded with close encounters with three alligators including the rarely-seen alpha male!

The trips take place in a small boat with benches and low sides, so you are told - repeatedly - to keep back from the edge and under no circumstances lean over. We discovered why when we spotted our first alligator - they can swim fast! The water is covered with algae which meant the guide spotted the alligators first - a pair of eyes just above the water - then as they got close we all got a better view. They swam right up to the boat and the guide fed them with sausages and marshmallows (!) - giving us a great photo opportunity. We saw other wildlife as well in the swamp but the alligators really were the main attraction.

I'd checked out our lunch options online in advance as the tour finished just before 1pm. We drove into the nearby town of Slidell and to the Camellia Café. The area is known for its seafood - since New Orleans is on the coast and Slidell isn't far off, so I decided to indulge in the seafood platter. At $24.95 it was more expensive than most other options but I really wanted to try it - it had catfish, crab, stuffed crab, prawns, stuffed prawns and oysters but I didn't want the oysters so asked for them to be left off. The dish also came with a choice of sides so I had sweet potato fries, and when it all came, I thought I wouldn't need to eat again for a week! Everything was in breadcrumbs and deep fried which I wasn't expecting and it was definitely too much but very tasty and actually good value for that much seafood (though I guess as seafood is plentiful here it's not as expensive as in London!).

My fiancé had a chicken burger while his mum had loaded fries and breaded mozzarella; I had about twice as much food as either of them and it was a shame to have to leave so much but neither of them eat fish. In all the bill only came to $70 which was amazing - I definitely recommend this place if you are looking for somewhere to eat after the Honey Island Swamp Tour!

We dropped off our hire car just outside New Orleans and took a taxi to our hotel, Le Marais. It was right in the town centre, literally around the corner from Bourbon Street - the famous street lined with bars and from what I could see, strip joints as well - but it was actually pretty quiet and if you want to avoid the drunken crowd on Bourbon Street, you can just head the other way and you wouldn't even know it was there.

Le Marais is a boutique hotel with a lot of purple and trendy lighting; it has a small but nice bar area with an outside courtyard with seating and a small pool but the weather wasn't really good enough for us to sit outside. The rooms are big and modern -a nice change after the period B&Bs we had been staying in - and the bed itself was huge.

Breakfast was quite simple but with a fair amount of choice; it's served buffet-style in the bar so you have to sit either at low tables or at the bar, which we did - we were the only people in there at the time, but as the bar is fairly small I don't know what happens if everyone goes to breakfast at once. There was a choice of cereal, yogurt, bread, bagels, pastries, sausage, bacon, grits and scrambled eggs.

One small tip if you are staying here - we went to Mardi Gras World (see below) and paid full price entry; afterwards I opened the desk drawer in our hotel room and found a 2 for 1 voucher that we could have used!

I'd never been to New Orleans before though my fiancé and his mum had, so we took a walk to Jackson Square, took photos of the cathedral and the river and then returned to our hotel for a brief respite before dinner at nearby Oceana.

I had something called Mardi Gras pasta - I was sold on the name alone - which had shrimps, crawfish and a creamy alfredo sauce; it was delicious and a nice change from all the meat or fried fish I'd been eating. I didn't want a dessert but all three of us were drooling over the sound of a chocolate mousse cake with Kahlua so decided to share it - I only had a few mouthfuls but it was delicious!

The following day we had booked onto the Gray Line Cemetery Tour. Again my fiancé and mother in law had done this tour before but wanted to go again and thought I would enjoy it. It's not like any other cemetery - where else would you see the tomb of the alleged Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, where even now people come to leave offerings, and the tomb of a Hollywood celebrity who isn’t actually dead yet?
It’s described as a walking tour but it’s more of a standing tour. We were taken by minibus a few minutes outside of the city centre, then let into the cemetery, which is actually pretty small (we’re not talking Arlington). We stood in front of different graves as the guide explained everything from the history of New Orleans and why most graves are above ground to interesting facts about the people buried there. It was actually billed as a cemetery and voodoo tour, but aside from the explanation about Marie Laveau at the beginning, there was nothing else voodoo related. Still, it was interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you which actor had this pyramid built to use as his tomb after he dies! (Though you can Google it if you’re really curious).
The next stop was something my fiancé has raved about for years ever since he went there: the Café du Monde. It’s a coffee shop in the French Quarter that was one of the first places to serve café au lait after the French brought coffee with them as they settled along the Mississippi River area in the 1700s. During the Civil War, the New Orleans Creoles developed chicory-blended coffee as there was a coffee shortage, which has been served in New Orleans ever since.
But it’s the beignets rather than the coffee that Café du Monde is really known for. They are a bit like doughnuts but were slightly less sweet; a serving gives you three quite large pieces covered in icing sugar, and I mean covered. Be prepared to get it all over you! I was expecting them to be amazing after everything my fiancé had said but actually didn’t really like them – they didn’t really taste of much and weren’t sweet enough for me. He and his mum were really surprised and I think I might be in the minority – in any case I can appreciate that Café du Monde is a New Orleans institution and it was cool to be able to say I’ve visited.
The nearby French market is fun; we watched some musicians and I bought a carnival mask and some feather hairbands. We stopped at the Market Café, which is housed in the second-oldest building in the market, for a drink and a snack; as my companions had filled up on beignets and I hadn’t (I only ate one of the three) they didn’t want much to eat, so my mother in law just had fries (and asked for mayo which was never brought) and I had a half Mufaletta, a type of sandwich that originated in New Orleans, so I had to try it! It consisted of a large, flat piece of bread (the whole sandwich would have been the size of a small loaf I think!) filled with layers of mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, provolone and olives and lightly toasted – it was pretty good and very filling.
My fiancé and I wanted to go to Mardi Gras World so left my mother in law in a park reading her book as she said she preferred to people watch. We’d picked up a leaflet that wasn’t entirely clear – it had a map of pick up points for a free shuttle bus, or a number to call to have it collect you. As we were out and about, the cost to use our UK mobile phones would have been very high so instead we walked for about 20 minutes in the hot sun to one of the pick up points. It wasn’t clear where the bus went from so we asked someone working nearby who said we were supposed to phone for it! So we’d walked for nothing and still had to make an expensive phone call – if you’re an overseas tourist I’d recommend leaving from your hotel and getting the concierge to make the call for you.
We were collected about ten minutes later in a small minibus and taken to Mardi Gras World – it’s essentially a warehouse where one of the main companies that makes floats for the annual Mardi Gras parade operates. You can watch people working – they work on the floats all year round – and see a lot of the finished figures and floats. There is a short film to watch first, and we also got to try some King Cake, a Mardi Gras tradition, and even try on a few costumes and take photos. The guided tour was very interesting and after that we were given time to wander around by ourselves, before going back into the gift shop and café and requesting the next minibus back to our hotel. New Orleans at Mardi Gras must be amazing but very busy and the crowds put me off a bit – so for me this was probably the best way to see the floats.

In the evening, after meeting up with my mother in law again, we went out for dinner to a place near our hotel called Pierre Maspero’s. It describes itself as offering local Cajun cuisine in a landmark property in the French quarter. They have a very broad menu offering something for everyone – a lot of fish dishes, chicken and waffles, pasta, meat pies, sandwiches, salads and even fried alligator! I’d eaten crocodile once in Africa and didn’t feel the urge to try alligator; I ordered Blackened Red Drum, a Louisiana fish blackened with Cajun spices, which came with two sides of my choice so I tried Cajun jambalaya (a rice and sausage dish) and crawfish etoufee (essentially fish soup with rice), both of which were really nice.
The three of us shared the chocolate mousse cake for dessert which was very good, but the whipped cream on top was very sweet, looked like it came out of a spray can and was in my opinion an unnecessary addition. The restaurant packed its guests in pretty tightly but seemed family friendly and the service was good.
The following morning, we left my mother in law in New Orleans and flew on to Chicago…..








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